Carrots and sticks don’t work. It’s official. According to psychologist Dr Maureen Gaffney, rewards and punishments destroy motivation and creativity in the workplace, in the arts and in education. Humanity’s naturally actuarial and risk-averse characteristics encourage us to think that the best way to foster creativity and to come up with original research is to offer rewards and punishments. Nothing could be further from the truth.
1970s psychological experiment
In a now famous experiment, psychologists observed children aged three to five as they played spontaneously and identified those who most liked drawing. A few weeks later the psychologists returned and asked those children to draw a picture. They divided the children into three groups. The first group were promised an award when they had finished the drawing. The second group were not promised anything, but when they had drawn the picture they were told they had done such a good job they were getting an award. The third group were neither promised, nor given, anything.[i]
Why do psychologists like to experiment on children? The infamous marshmallow test is another such example. These experiments resonate with us as adults because we know that, in spite of all our overlaying rationalizations, we think and feel in the same way as these children. So what were were the conclusions of the experiment?
Of the three groups, the children who were promised the award produced the lowest quality drawings. More troublingly, when they were subsequently observed playing, those who were promised the award now showed much less interest in drawing, and spent significantly less time doing it than they had before. It was not the reward itself but the promise of a reward that had turned high-quality play into poor-quality work.
Hope deferred maketh the heart sick
Rewards and punishments simply encourage transactional thinking. Instead of allowing ourselves to concentrate fully or to do a thing for its own sake, we wonder what the reward will be, whether we will obtain an award, whether we will be disappointed or validated, why person X has been rewarded and not person Y. There are those who spend too much time looking over their shoulder wondering if they are doing a thing right instead of just getting on with it and enjoying it. There are also those who, when they are not rewarded, become discouraged and alienated as hopes are repeatedly raised and deferred. What hoops have to be jumped through, what boxes ticked, what procedures observed in order to obtain the desired prize?
In order to obtain funding from grant-giving bodies, applicants are required to state what the outcomes of their research will be before the research has even begun. Yet outcome-oriented research is research only in name, a predictive exercise in closing down possibilities. Gaffney makes a similar point about predictability in the creative arts: you can’t make artists be creative or ask them to tell you what their art will look like before they have started.
In her book Flourishing, Gaffney explores the quality of resilience not only in the individual but also in organizations and societies:
Organizational values such as compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, internal trust and optimism may seem remote from profitability, productivity, quality, customer retention.
Yet studies of organizations across a number of sectors have shown that those which score higher on values such as forgiveness and internal trust also perform significantly better than other organizations when it comes to productivity and customer retention.
So the message from psychologists is that if you are running a body that supports creative artists or if you give grants to researchers and inventors, you are wise to focus on those human qualities of compassion and optimism, but, and this is an interesting paradox, you need to do so in a, non-calculating (dare I say creative?) way yourself.
[i] Maureen Gaffney, ‘How control kills creativity’, Creative Ireland Supplement, Irish Times, 13 December 2017, p. 8.